VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Even as part of the youngest side at the World Cup in Russia, Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho stands out as a novice in international football.
The gangly 19 year-old has played only seven times for his country and even fewer for his club, Deportivo La Coruna of Spain where he has mostly appeared for the B team.
Yet coach Gernot Rohr has entrusted him with the gloves for the tournament, including Friday’s high-pressure Group D game against Iceland in Volgograd, a match that the manager says Nigeria have to win after their opening 2-0 defeat to Croatia.
“He is the youngest goalkeeper in the World Cup,” Rohr told reporters on Thursday. “But he is cool-headed and a very good worker in training. I think he will be a good solution for the future for Nigeria.”
In normal circumstances, Uzoho would not be anywhere near the starting 11 in Russia.
But first-choice goalkeeper Carl Ikeme was diagnosed with acute leukaemia last year and his replacement Daniel Akpeyi appeared jittery in the few games he played.
So, with the World Cup approaching, Rohr searched around for a replacement and identified the young Uzoho.
“We found Francis who was playing some games with La Coruna and he’s even playing with the second team,” the German manager said. “We sent our goalkeeping coach twice for two weeks to La Coruna to have special work. He prepared him very well.”
Uzoho appeared alongside Rohr at Thursday’s pre-match news conference, underscoring his status as Nigeria’s first-choice goalkeeper.
“I know what Nigerians expect from their goalkeepers,” he said when asked about former occupants of the role. “I just try for now not to think about them so it won’t get to me.”
On the World Cup debutants Iceland — who pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the tournament so far by drawing 1-1 with twice champions Argentina — Rohr downplayed suggestions that his team were favourites to win.
“They had such a great match against Argentina. We know it will be very difficult to beat them,” he said.
While Nigeria are the youngest team at the World Cup, based on the age of their squad during the qualifiers, Iceland are among the oldest, giving them the edge in terms of experience, Rohr said.
Yet the Africans might have one factor on their side on Friday: the heat of Volgograd in Russia’s south, where temperatures are expected to be around 32 degrees Celsius (90F)when the match kicks off at 1800 local time (1500 GMT).
“Let’s have a little advantage also,” Rohr said. “They have around 20,000 (fans) from Iceland. It will be an away game for us... Perhaps the temperature is better for the African players. It is possible.”
Additional reporting by Mark Gleeson; Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Christian Radnedge